'Did I form a relationship? Sure. But we were never father and son'
Below is an edited transcript of Peter Murphy’s interview with Patsy McGarry
Telling his story: Peter Murphy with Donal MacIntyre of TV3
He was in Dublin recently to be interviewed for a new four-part TV3 series, Print and Be Damned, on the role of the printed media in Ireland. He appears in the first programme which will be broadcast next Thursday.
He described himself as “a fat single white guy with a cat.. I’m basically any comedian’s wet dream.”
He recalled how his step-father Arthur Pennell went to the US media first with the story of who Peter’s father was but that they weren’t interested.
Peter: “Yes. That’s exactly it. They didn’t really care. I remember he’d constantly come home and he’d have tirades about it. (I said) why don’t you shut up and go to an Irish paper, maybe they’ll listen to you. It was more a response to get him to be quiet because he was giving me a headache. He was just complaining about it. I was a petulant teenager...’are we going to hear about this again?’ I just made an off comment, and he looked at me, and two weeks later I guess he contacted The Irish Times. I remember it was around Christmas break when I made the comment. I was just kind of saying it to get him to stop...”
Peter was already aware of Bishop Casey
“I knew something about my father . . . I think since I was 5 or 6. His name was Eamon. He was larger than life. My grandmother told me. I don’t remember the instant when she told me. My Mom always had this newspaper article with a picture of Eamon blowing on some brass instrument, a trumpet ...as long as I can remember I think I knew... I didn’t realise what that meant till I saw him when I was 9 on the television with Reagan on one side and him on the other. I think at that point it went from a picture to him speaking...just to see him tearing up Reagan...this is not your everyday Tom, Dick or Harry. He’s a man of consequence.”
His mother had got him up to see the programme.
“Yeah, she woke me up that morning and she goes ‘listen, wake up. Do you want to see your father?’ And I said: ‘what do you mean? I’ve seen the photo’. ‘No’, she said ‘do you want to see him?’ Then she brought me downstairs ... I remember coming down the stairwell and I could see Reagan on the one side and I could tell there was another person on the other ...I’d seen the photo and I recognised him right away. It was, what do you call it: an epiphany. It was some Sunday morning political show 7 o’clockish. This was 29 years ago, 1983 could’ve been 1984.
His very first direct contact with Bishop Casey was when he was 15 years old.
It was “in the law offices of the Attorney Peter McKay who represented the paternity suit my Mom made...in New York. That was the first time I met Eamon.” It did not go well.
“He didn’t want to talk to me. In hindsight I was the representation of the end of everything he worked for. Of course I took it incredibly personally. I ran down. Got the elevator. Came downstairs. Tried to keep a stoic face. Saw my Mom and burst into tears...you’re 15, had questions. He didn’t want to answer them. I felt slighted.”
The purpose of that meeting “was to get something back for the years that my Mom had to, basically, pay for me. For me the most important thing was meeting him. When you’re 15 you don’t understand ...so, it was what it was..”
Not long after that Annie, Peter and Arthur Pennell left the US. “We originally thought we were going to move to Scotland. Nothing happened. He was from Edinburgh. It was the early 90s. They got the idea then: ‘let’s try Ireland’. Next thing you know we bought a house in Kinsale. So I lived in Ireland when I turned 16. And I actually went to the local school in Kinsale for half the year. A Catholic school. I grew up in the New York, Connecticut public school system. I was buying grey slacks, a maroon sweater. The whole deal. They had some pipe dream.”
He later found out that “my stepfather I guess, unbeknownst to me, drove up to Galway. He went down there and said (to Bishop Casey) ‘listen, your son really wants to meet you. Obviously you don’t have to admit who he is. Say he’s whatever’. I guess he had some choice words for Arthur which Arthur didn’t like very much. Arthur was not a man you did that to. He then returned from his trip and that was his new goal.”
Peter continued: “You have to understand my stepfather was a poor man that grew up poor in Scotland. He had this chip on his shoulder. There were the have nots and the haves. That was it. He met Eamon, saw what he had and said `you’re a goddam have and I’m a have not. You just slapped my face.’ And that was it. You couldn’t talk him out of it.”
He felt that “if Eamon had said ‘yes’, Arthur wouldn’t have pushed it, he wouldn’t. Again, in hindsight you go back, and the man (Eamon) was doing what any man in that position ...you are an example of what did happen.. taking everything he’d worked his ass off for. Eamon didn’t come from gentry. He built what he was, what he had, he made it.”
They were in Kinsale for about six months. “It was a harebrained scheme. We should never have bought a property there. We were losing money, hand over fist. They moved over there as the dollar started to crumble because of the first Gulf War. It was a house outside the village, closer to the coast. And I admitted to them there’s no way I’ll pass this exam. The reality of me getting through the Leaving Cert and getting into a university, it’s not going to happen. These kids have been studying seven eight hours a day since they were 10 years old.”
He recalled that Math and History were relatively easy over here compared to the States, but English . . . They put me in honours English and I remember the first day I was put in that class the teacher - a beautiful willowy woman, I guess she was a model in a previous life - she looked at me and heard my American accent and she said ‘what are you doing here, what made you take this course?’ I said ‘what do you mean?’
‘O dearie, you’re be lucky to pass.’ After that I realised.
They returned to Connecticut.
But Arthur continued on his course. “If he had to wait 30 years he’d have waited 30 years. He was like a dog on a bone.”
He contacted The Irish Times.
“To tell you the truth I kinda remember him saying he did. I just didn’t pay attention to it because this was my last semester. I was waiting to find out if I was accepted at UCONN (University of Connecticut). In my mind there were more important things to worry about. I didn’t really much care about it until finally one day my Mom goes ‘there’s a reporter coming over tomorrow and he’s from The Irish Times and he’s going to ask questions...just tell him the truth, tell him what you know’.
The reporter was Conor O’Clery, then The Irish Times Washington Correspondent.
“And then he came over. To be honest I don’t remember anything I was asked but I do remember he was very factual, he was very straight...I didn’t know what journalism was but if there was a professional in that field I would have expected him to look and act like him, very austere. That was when we had the interview. I don’t know when that was. I think maybe they told me it was March.”
Conor O’Clery was there “three or four hours. I mean not just me. He was talking to my Mom and Arthur more often. His questions for me were pointed, like the first meeting I had with Eamon... things that I could answer. Anything else he didn’t bother. That was it. We didn’t hear anything for a while. Then someone must have given my Mom or Arthur a heads up call. The story has broken. I woke up the next day to a knock on the door. My Mom answers it. It was a radio reporter from the Irish Echo. I went out and had a very short three-minute interview with him because I had to go to school.”
He was “with my buddy Mike (on the way back from High School). There was a small parking lot western side. There were a lot of people. . .
Holy shit, news trucks, satellite dishes. I remember fighting my way up the stairwell. ‘Are you Peter? Are you Peter?’ Holy crap. I looked at my buddy (and said): ‘can you tell Mom I’m going to be late?’ because I had to go to work in the local grocery store. It was surreal. I still went to work that day.”
He continued: “I will say this they left me alone pretty much. I don’t know if it was altruism. They realised running around, chasing a minor into his job might not be a better idea...they had my Mom. I was 17”
Then he was a national story in the US. “I think within a week we were interviewed on Donohue (The Donohue Show). It was pretty much near the end of my school year at this point. I think it was the second week in May, when we went Donohue. I was a 17-year-old kid. This was outrageously exciting. It’s insane. You can fight against it and drown or just go with it. I decided to go with it. For me, at least media-wise, it was pretty much the Donohue Show and that was it. I was kind of removed from all of it. My Mom kind of wanted that. I kind of agreed with her. And I didn’t do anything else. There was a 20:20 interview on ABC and that wasn’t taped until the following Spring.
He was not involved with the 1993 Annie Murphy’s/Peter de Rosa book Forbidden Fruit: the true story of my secret love for the Bishop of Galway
“I was done. I was separated from that,” he said.
He met his father in New York. “I met him in 1992 a few months after.
Maybe June? I can’t remember correctly. I met him quickly. He wanted to strike while the iron was hot. He met me right away. Like I said the first one (meeting) was...I was an angry little prick but he was patient and calm, understanding. He said he wanted to do it again and I said ‘maybe’. I agreed when I was up at UCONN.”
Their second meeting was at the University. “I can’t remember, it was the fall of ‘92 or Spring ‘93. I was still a little bit.... I was not going to give into him. He was entrancing. One of those figures. It was a heck of a lot more positive an interaction.”
Their third meeting was also in New York “and that was a great time. Summer of ‘93. He was so engaging. There was no agenda, no ‘’let’s get into this’. We just talked. He was very smart the way he dealt with it. He really kept it open and airy and ‘just let’s have a good time and let’s talk. You have a question for me, ask it. I may be able to answer it and I may not’. That’s just the way it worked...we talked about politics, anything, the day, the weather I don’t know; whatever came into my brain.”
They met regularly after that. “From ‘93 to’ 98/’99, at least two maybe three times a year. Somewhere around 2001/2002-ish it reduced down to one time a year. Because I mean he was 76. In about 2005/6, was maybe the last time we had lunch. The last two times he couldn’t even do dinners. They needed to be lunches so he could get back to where he was (staying). Always in Boston. The first few times in New York. I moved up to Boston in ‘95. Once I moved up to Boston we always met there. He loved it. I worked in the restaurant industry for a long time. I went to all the places either my friends managed or I worked at. They’d love to meet him. They forgot who I was ...
But Peter had already begun to notice a deterioration in his father.
“I remember we were at one of my buddies’ Dave Flanagan’s, born and raised in Dublin. He loved the fact that Eamon would come to his restaurant. Listen, he made it easy. We got a private table. Nobody bothered us. He served all the food. It was grand. And Dave is such a high energy lunatic. He loved Eamon. His parents loved Eamon.
Then “one time Dave kinda got into a contentious argument with him and Eamon normally could just (snap, snap)...even with some drink in him. Don’t get me wrong. These were Olympic-like events of eating and drinking, we would have together. But his sharpness was there. I think it must’ve been 2002/3. He got very flummoxed. At first I blamed it on the alcohol and I had to tell Dave: ‘Dave, shut up. Get up and go away. You know I mean this is a time for him and I, not for you to start talking about paedophiles in the Church. Ok’.”
It was the following year “we needed to have lunches not dinners..I don’t know if that was the beginning of the deterioration or just [THAT]he was 76 years old.”
Peter was familiar with the symptom of Alzheirmer’s. “You have to understand when I grew up my grandmother lived with my Mom and I after my grandfather passed away. I watched her fairly lucid from 6 years old right through the pathway to madness all the way to absolutely out of her mind with Alzheimer’s. We took care of her all the way to her death when I was 13. So, I would not call myself a doctor. I knew what it was like. I never saw any of those real steps (with Eamon). But when I did have that phone conversation with him I knew right away.
About three years ago.
“I called him up and he didn’t know who I was. (Kerry accent) ‘Who are you?’
‘I don’t know you’
‘Are you ok?’
‘I can’t talk to you...I..I...I ...I’m sorry and I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you’. Like I told you it’s that he could hear my voice. He knew he should know who I was’.”
He continued “you have to understand that Alzheimer’s is like living in the light and at a moment’s notice someone turns all the lights off and in front of you with the lights on is this memory and this thing and you can easily ascertain and grab, and the next thing the lights are off. It’s so brutal and so intense at times that I knew, whoa....
I’m just going to make him really agitated ... ‘listen I have to go. It was good talking to you’.”
It was the last time they spoke. “I tried calling the number many times after that and it just went `this voicemail is full’ and I just said `you know what, they’ve got their hands full’. It was bad enough when my grandmother took that turn. It was brutal, violent outbursts, rage, anger, She wasn’t a person who lived her life in the public eye, managing massive accounts, being a part of a great...this is a guy that lived and died based on his brain and now it’s...taken away.”
He and his father last met in 2006/7. The following year “he called and said I can’t come over this year. He had his second hip replacement. He’s 86 this year. I would call him. Sometimes he would pick up, sometimes he wouldn’t. He didn’t like telephones. It was understandable. You never knew who was on the other line.”
Peter himself asked the questions. “Did I form a relationship? Did I get to love the man? Sure. But in the end we were never father and son. We were two people that got to know each other. Him, very much in the twilight of his life. Me as a young adult. We became very good friends. That’s all I ever wanted from him.”
He is “a firm believer in freedom of religion and I will never denounce, deny or speak to anybody about their views and how they want to handle God. That is their business. I mean all I ask is don’t put yours on me as well.”
He wasn’t raised a Catholic. “ My grandmother, she was very much the Catholic influence. Once she started going to dementia we couldn’t bring her. She had a few unseemly outbursts during Mass. No I told my Mom, when she asked me about going to Mass, I’d go ‘it’s horrible. It looks like the devil up front’. I was talking about the priest...roaring and shouting. So, no I...my Mom and my aunt were in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) . That’s where they met my stepfather (Arthur Pennell). So there was a supreme spiritual link. My family believed in God. It didn’t need it to be structured.”
He felt the Catholic Church’s treatment of his father was “ridiculous”.
“I mean six years penance in a foreign country and then the five years he spent in England made it even more egregious and more painful because of how close he was to his goal and all he wanted to do was go home and say Mass. Was that so terrible? So no, especially with what has come across our eyes in last 20, 17 years...all the paedophile scandals. To tell you the truth I felt this way from the get go. What did the guy do? He had an affair.”
Being prevent from saying Mass in public hurt Bishop Casey deeply.
“The last two or three times that we met that was it. That’s all he wanted to be able to do. He felt if he could do that he could really be at peace with everything that happened. That was one thing that gnawed at him that he wasn’t able to take part in or to do.”
Where religion and Peter were concerned he said his father “was very good at walking a very fine line with me and not preaching but he gave me some books to read. And they were beautiful. Yeah, his faith was paramount to who he was. No matter what he believed that was a massive part of him. And the Church? He loved the Church, no matter what it did to him he still loved it.”
They didn’t discuss the abuse issue.
“You know I avoided it with him. Of course he did make a comment of how much it hurt him and how awful it was, but I had a short time with him. I had a couple of hours. I’m not talking about that stuff.
Peter spent three years as a student at UNCONN. “I did more drinking than I did studying.” He was your “typical jackass American of that age. I didn’t know what I wanted to be so I changed majors every three months and I majored in having fun. I loved UNCONN. In what would’ve been my junior year I moved to Boston.
UNCONN is based in the town of Storrs, “about 20 minutes from the Massachusetts border. It’s a great school and I met some amazing friends there, amazing. I moved up to Boston with a buddy of mine Kevin and I didn’t know the hell what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to film school. Went to Emerson, it’s an Arts school. I never went to a lot of the classes. I hated structured academia. I liked labs. I did a bunch of internships and I adored them. I liked doing things. I didn’t like sitting in a lecture being told about stuff. I would’ve rather read a book and then go somewhere and be part of a learning experience.”
Then “to get myself through school, to make a living, Eamon, through the Irish Immigration Centre, got me a job at a hotel and I got a job in a bar called the Last Hurrah. It was a unionised hotel so the wages were quite good. It got me into the restaurant industry. That was ‘95. I left restaurants in 2003. Mostly I was a waiter. I worked in some nice places, high end.”
But he was fed up. “In one bar I ended up being in an overpaid post.
‘Didn’t like it. One of the doormen worked at a company called ‘Tweeter’, a stereo store. One of my passions was movies. One of the doormen who became a good friend got sick of me complaining. He goes `why don’t you come work for me?’ He was a manager at one of the Tweeter stores. And I quit and started with him two days later. I worked there till Tweeter went out of business in 2008. I went on to unemployment. Five months later I started where I work now....selling high end electronics, 100 per cent commission.”
His mother is well. She moved out to California in 2009. She is 65. “She’s got memory relapse but overall she’s very good. The move out there was very good for her health.”
Arthur died “somewhere around 2006. When they separated it was not good. Around 2000, 2001, it was before September 11th. He became very obsessive about certain things. He was more 1924. He was born two years earlier than Eamon. He was about 82, 81. It sucked because he was part of my life. He was an irascible son of a....sometimes. He was awesome. He was incredibly funny and he was so loving.”
Arthur was “a good man. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He loved the hell out of you. He didn’t know how to show it or say it too often but, you knew it. But near the end he had this counting disorder. He’d count all the tiles or he’d count all the dots, obsessive compulsive disorder and we never knew. He’d never admit it to us. Like, he was a brilliant carpenter, the stuff he did. He’d work on a home that was
200/300 years old. The people hated him because he was so goddamned slow but when he was done they thought he was Christ walking on water.”
What Arthur and Annie did “was flip homes. They did it twice. The original idea was....bought this small house. It was an old naval prefab. They wanted to, basically, build around it and my Mom had a beautiful eye. The last house they did ended up being gorgeous. They made some good money. But, for whatever reason, he had to design a whole home from scratch. That was a man who was kicked out a school at
12 years old. He designed a 5,000 sq ft home from scratch.
Arthur and Annie met at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1982 when Peter “was around 7. By the time I was 8 he’d pretty much moved in.”
They had “some slips. I had one young memory of her being high or drunk and the boyfriend of the time was trying to calm her down. There was a big move to the AA in the ‘70s in this country (US). I think less from the fact of people being drop down drunk like Leaving Las Vegas and more like people looking for places to deal with issues. My grandmother, I mean, she was great to me but she was not great to my Mom. She was an alcoholic. My Mom should have gone to Al Anon but there was no Al Anon in the ‘70s. There was AA so that was what she got into, that’s where she met Arthur.”
Peter himself “used to go to these meeting if they couldn’t get a babysitter”.
Annie is with another partner now. “He’s an artist. He’s very much the opposite to Arthur. He’s pretty much within a year of my Mom’s age. Arthur was a lot older. And where Arthur was very fiery, he is a very calm, very bright guy, very sardonic, very interesting sense of humour. They get along like two peas in a pod.”
As to his mother’s attitude to Ireland and whether she feels she was treated badly here, Peter said: “I don’t think she cares. She hasn’t been here since she did the book tour. They had to basically put her unconscious to get her on a plane over here. And I don’t think she doesn’t come here because she feels Ireland has done something bad to her. That’s a part of her life. She’s got her art. She draws, writes stories and that.”
He himself hadn’t been back to Ireland since the early 1990s. “I haven’t been in Ireland in 22 years, when we lived in Kinsale. I did a lot of travelling in the States. I didn’t do a lot of travelling outside the US. I didn’t want to come here and be recognised. If I was to come here I wanted to see Ireland. Then it got to the point where financially I was a working stiff, working pay check to pay check. Between 2004 and 2008 you know how expensive this place was. I just couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t stay here for a day. That’s also half the reason I jumped at this... even if it’s only for a couple of days.”
He was brought to Ireland by David Malone of Sideline Productions to take part in the new four part TV3 series Print and Be Damned, which begins on Thursday.
Peter doesn’t have any real sense of an Irish identity. “I left here when I was three. The time (in Kinsale), that six months, for three and a half months I went to school. You understand the first month I was there they hated me. I was an American. I was in an Irish town but it was Kinsale. It’s an Irish town but it gets a tremendous amount of tourists and if they saw Americans they were mostly the worst example of American, obnoxious.
“Two kids who were most vindictive to me became two of my better friends, Paul and Martin. Initially it was tough but it was mesmerising. In New York city and Connecticut public schools I had never dealt with anything like going to a Catholic school. I mean, the sexual repression. O my God, grabbing girls. These kids, I’m looking at them, they just need to get laid. This is dangerous. The nuns were very interesting to me. Some of them were stereotypical. One was awesome, a later vocation. She left. The head was a frightening creature. The name - something long, painful, I’m-on-a-cross-somebody’s- beating-me name.....”
He explained how he arrived in Ireland. “David (Malone) got in touch with my Mom. My Mom heard ‘reporter’.
‘No, no. I don’t want to talk to you.” But David Malone wanted to talk to Peter.
“I trust my Mom implicitly when it comes to gauging people. My Mom forwarded an email. I made it clear if there’s anything regarding any type of sensationalism, just don’t even bother talking to me because I’ll have nothing to do with it.”
He and David Malone “had a really nice conversation. He’s a professional. I saw online he’s attached to very serious work. He described the story, the concept of what they were doing, some of the most important events in Ireland for 40 and 50 years and how the press handled them. And it was an awesome excuse to come and see Ireland for the first time in 22 years. And I liked David. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The right time.”
As for himself, how does he feel himself about everything looking back? He’s “not a soap box type of guy.” He had no sense of anger.
“I’ve no time for that shit, to be blunt. There’s enough stresses in my life. I’ve to pay bills. I’m getting fat. I’ve got to lose weight. You know what I mean. I’m nearly 40, around the corner. I don’t want to waste my time being angry about something neither I nor anyone else has any control over. That’s the kind of stuff that gives you ulcers, cancer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from perfect. I’ve got my own idiosyncrasies and asinine things but being angry about things over a long period about stuff I can’t control...?”
He has had some contact with Irish relatives. “There was a clan that were with Eamon that I did talk to for a while but, you know, being an idiot, being....not being close we wrote back and forth and I met the daughter in Boston once but they were the only group. There’s no connection to any on my Mom’s side. They’re all American Irish.
Listen, I barely talk to my cousins not because I dislike them. I call them, they don’t call me back. The only people I talk to are my Mom and my aunt, from my family.”
An interview by Donal MacIntyre with Peter Murphy will be broadcast during Print and Be Damned on TV3 on Thursday.